One day you're an attractive secret agent. The next day you can't look into a mirror without feeling disgust. That's the basic premise of Seven-Sided Spy, a Cold War thriller featuring a trio of CIA agents and their KGB counterparts.
Americans Diana Riley (codename: Hera) and Tim Carroll (Dresden) look like Hollywood actors. They, along with colleague Da Vinci Moretti (Niccolò), are subdued by Russian agents and brought to a KGB facility in the backwoods of North Carolina.
When Tim regains consciousness, he remembers a battle in which Russian agent Nikola kills him.
He'd been shot ... As he bled out on the pavement and tinges of pain sent his body seizing, he remembered her standing over him with long, graceful legs and a calmness in her eyes as she broke his neck. In fact, he was positive of it. He remembered trying to fight her off and the dirty copper taste of blood in his mouth. He tried to shove this unexplainable memory to the back of his mind and carry on.
While imprisoned, the Americans are given a mysterious steroid which turns their skin blue with cracks revealing muscle and bone.
Tim, the last to escape the facility, also is last to realize the extent of his own transformation when he encounters the others.
It was while gawking that Tim connected two and two. He pressed his chin to his chest and examined himself. His body shared the same blue hue as Hera's. Around his wrists, clusters of veins were visible just beneath his skin. Underneath his sleeves, the veins carried on to his arms, He shot a quick glance at Da Vinci and then Hera. They were both silent, giving him the time he needed to accept was was happening. Tim's torso was covered in bandages and something was jutting out of his chest. He yanked his shirt off and began ripping off the binding. Tim's stomach turned. More than a quarter of his heart was outside his body. Little metal tubes curled around and protected his ventricles and aorta. At first glance, the organ appeared vulnerable being out in the open, but upon pushing against it, Tim found it hard and reinforced.
"They knew themselves as these previously super high-maintenance and glamorous individuals who were gorgeous and living these crazy lives," said author Carmack, "and then they have to adjust."
The agents' adjustment to their new reality is eased somewhat when they realize the drug also gave them superhuman strength, the ability to heal catastrophic injuries, and various other powers including future sight.
Carmack, a recent NIU graduate, was inspired by X-Men: First Class, a 2011 superhero film set in the early 1960s. Carmack loved the movie's action and style -- plus "gorgeous" lead characters, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. But she kept wondering about an alternate plot.
"What if they had those abilities but were completely unable to reenter society? And then you add the complicated underlines of what this meant morally for them to have become these things rather than born as them," she said.
The author explores these moral aspects in her book by having KGB leaders inject a trio of their own agents with the steroid, setting up a conflict between artificially augmented U.S. and Soviet spies.
"The KGB agents don't want to undergo this procedure," Carmack said. "These characters aren't just tools to their country. These are people who are there for their own reasons, and every single one of them has a story worth knowing."
Carmack says she started writing this novel during her senior year of high school. After graduating from NIU, the author immediately went into book-release mode in January.
"It's been absolutely insane, all of the people that you meet and all of the wonderful connections that you make," she said. "Writers are such a loving community because we're all a little bit weird. I've met some of the best people I've met my entire life just through these past couple of months since my book came out."
Carmack says she has no immediate plans for a sequel. Her next project will be about the state of U.S. education under federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She expects that book to come out next Spring.
Next month, our Read With Me series turns to short fiction with Chicago Bound, by Sandra Colbert.
As always, we welcome your comments in the space below. And if you talk about these books or authors on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithMe.